The living room was silent as Semsa Alic recalled the most difficult time in her life. Her hand rose to her mouth as she looked at the ground, the tears beginning to fall.
“A lot of people don’t know what you go through when you go through war — what it’s like to lose everything. It’s hard.”
Semsa, 39, the mother of standout Carlisle wrestler Muhamed Alic, grew up in war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 90s. She now resides in Carlisle with her husband and two sons, where she has lived for 18 years.
Not many people know about the Bosnian War — and this is something Semsa looks to change. The war began in early 1992, and was part of the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, located in southeastern Europe, called for independence Feb. 29, 1992.
The call for an independent state was rejected by political representatives of Bosnian Serbs. They in turn began mobilizing forces inside of the republic in order to gain control of Serb territory. They declared independence on March 3, 1992, but the exact start of the war — sometime between March and April of 1992 — is still contested. The war soon spread throughout the country, accompanied with the mass genocide of the Bosniak Muslim and Croat population. There were 350,000 casualties, according to cja.org, including thousands of civilian deaths.
The war became known for mass genocide and ethnic cleansing. Accounts of rape and sexual assault on women were common.
On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serbs took over a United Nations’ safe zone in Srebrenica, separated around 8,000 Muslim men and boys and killed them over the course of three days. The genocidal act was the single largest of its kind in Europe since World War II.
“June 28, 1993,” Semsa began. “This was the first time a soldier came into our village to flame — about 5-to-6,000 people. That was the scariest thing to ever happen to me in my life. I was 16, my sister was 13 and I had to take care of my youngest brother and sister because my dad could not walk.
“My mom just told me to hold my brother and sister just like this,” Semsa pauses to clench her hand into a fist. “If I let them go I could lose them. We have to go between two front lines. And that was another one of the scariest things in my life. You don’t know if you’re going to make it past that.”
Scared, hungry and cold, Semsa, her family and a group of people from Čobe, her village located near Maglaj, continued to trek on with the help of military friendlies as they attempted to seek refuge.
“As we moved on, there were bombs everywhere and we would walk to reach free land — that was a big thing for all of us,” Semsa said. “At this time, my dad couldn’t hold himself up, so they tied him sitting on a horse. Then I saw him fall, and I wanted to go back and help my mom and help him, and my mom was begging me to keep going.
“She would tell me and my two brothers and sisters, ‘Don’t worry about me and Dad. You just take care of them. Don’t turn around no matter what happens. I want you to be free.’”
From there, the circumstances her family encountered got worse.
Semsa and her family, along with the survivors from her village, continued to walk towards free land. As it got close to night, the military they were travelling with stopped the group. Up ahead were opposing miltary forces.
“They said to us, ‘If they find out that you’re here, they’ll kill you,’” Semsa said.
Their group continued on after a few hours because it was getting dark.
Then they ran into the mine fields.
The military the group was walking with forbid them to walk behind them, keeping the survivors in a straight line so they wouldn’t step on any mines.
Semsa paused for a moment before continuing to tell the story, looking down at the floor.
“One lady stepped on a mine and she was holding her child in her arms,” Semsa said. “They wouldn’t let her move. She realized she stepped on the mine and they wanted everyone around her to move away, and a couple of those people came and took her little girl from her arms. She lost her leg under her knee — that was the worst thing.”
Semsa’s family and the survivors from her village continued on. Soon they came to a stop in the woods. The military had tractors full of injured and dying people. Food was brought for the soldiers on the front lines and the fleeing civilians.
“There was another, and I saw them steer off the straight line and hit a rock, or something,” Semsa said.
“I was scared when I saw the people laying there because I was 16 years old, I was young. When they moved the tractor, one of the people had a bandage around their head and face. When the tractor hit that, half of his face fell off and I was scared — I almost passed out. You could see everything.”
When the war began to die down and life could finally return to normal, Semsa went back to the city of Zenica to start a new life. There, in the spring of 1995, Semsa met Zehrid. A month-and-a-half later, they were married.
Zehrid, like Semsa, had dealt with his own horrors during the Bosnian war. As a soldier in the Bosnian army fighting for independence, Zehrid was captured as a prisoner of war.
“Serbia, and a little bit later, Croatia attacked Bosnia. We landed in between Croatia and Serbia, and we (fought),” Zehrid said. “The Croatian army came into my town and captured me and put me into the prison. I was there for nine-and-a-half months. That was a very rough time. All of my left ribs were broken, and parts of my head they had broken a couple of times.
“It was a rough time and I don’t like to think about it and I don’t like talking about that.”
The war is not easy for the Alics to talk about. The room fell into silence again until the subject of finally being able to leave Bosnia was brought up. It’s an easier topic for the couple to discuss.
Semsa and Zehrid got married on May 25th, 1994, and soon after Zehrid began work as a shoemaker. A year-and-a-half later, Semsa had her first son, Hasan, and didn’t want to move anywhere else.
“After all of those hard times I had been through there, how could I just leave everything there, leave my family there?” Semsa said.
That was, until her husband, as a P.O.W., was registered by the Red Cross. The registration put their names on a list to come to the United States.
This would be the beginnings of a new life for the couple and their young son.
Two years after the war, Zehrid applied as a refugee in May, 1997. Officials in charge of the program told Zehrid and Semsa that they wouldn’t know if they were accepted until an officer interviewed them. In the second interview Zehrid described how he was beaten in the prison.
The pair also went through physicals. Two months later they found out they were accepted and would have a flight to the United States where they would meet their sponsors, Dennis and Sherry Minnich.
Zehrid, Semsa and Hasan made their way over to the United States in November of 1997. They had no idea what they would be coming in to. To Semsa, it was a dramatic culture shock.
“There’s a huge difference between Bosnia and America,” Semsa said. “First I was shocked because when I went downtown, there was no one around. In Bosnia, you always see people having coffee with friends or chatting on the street, but here there’s no one around. I said, ‘Where do these people go? Do they just sit in a house all day?’ It’s very different.
“When we came here it was hard, to be honest. We left everything. Just imagine, leaving from your home and leaving everything. You need to just leave and not tell anyone — nothing. You don’t have your eyes, you’re blind. You don’t have your ears, you’re deaf. You come over here and you don’t know anything. What gave me hope, however, was good people. For example, my sponsors, they didn’t know me and they didn’t have anything, but they were willing to help us. They were willing to be there for some people that they didn’t know. I never will forget and I will always be here for them.”
After the Minniches and the Alics got acquainted over a few months, Semsa found out she was pregnant with Muhamed. Difficulty with bleeding, though, forced her to quit her job. To keep busy, she spent her time trying to learn English.
“It’s hard,” Semsa said, laughing loudly. “I try to learn things and memorize them. I was speaking some English in 2009, but not like this. Sometimes if I say something wrong, my two boys, they’ll say, ‘Mom, nice try, but you said that wrong.’ They correct me and it was a huge help for me.
“I’m happy that when I say something wrong, the people that correct me, they don’t laugh at me, they just say that I said something wrong. They try to teach me.”
Semsa still continues to learn English, and she is thankful for where she and her family are now.
“War is the worst thing that can happen to somebody. Doesn’t matter where, or which country, wars stink,” Semsa said. “My great grandpa went through war, my grandparents went through war and my parents went through war. Then I went through war. Four generations went through war. I’m thankful I’m here and that my kids are here and safe, and I don’t have to think about that.
“My kids don’t know a lot about what we went through, my husband and I, because we want them to have a happy and healthy life. I don’t want them to worry about that, I want them to worry about their school, and about themselves to be good people. That is my wish for my kids — to just help people.”
What Muhamed and Hasan have been taught of their parents’ struggles is difficult for them to understand.
“What runs through my head is that I can’t believe my parents went through this,” Muhamed said. “People tell you stories of war, everything that happened, but then when you actually talk to someone that’s been through it, it’s a completely different story. They can tell you what happened from a regular point of view. When you hear about World War II, you just hear about Hitler, a bunch of people dying and the Holocaust and all that, but nobody can tell you about that experience.
“When somebody tells you about that experience, it’s like a whole different game.”
The Alics went through a living hell.
They have found Elysium.